Monday, April 24, 2017

Once More Unto the Breeches

I’ve been collecting malapropisms from ostensibly very high-class publications, and it’s surprising how many usage errors turn up in journals who purport to use good English. Most of them are the type of malapropism known as an eggcorn, which is named for a mistake made by a woman who misunderstood the word acorn.

The New Yorker, of all esoteric literary magazines, recently wrote that the Royal Shakespeare Company had gone “once more unto the breech” in its productions of for history plays. According to my dictionary this might mean the RSC had betaken itself to half of a pair of short pants, to the rear end of someone's body, to a baby being born head first, or to part of a firearm to the rear of the barrel. None of these made much sense.

I think The New Yorker intended to say the Shakespeareans had gone to the breach, alluding to a quotation from Henry V:
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
            Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In this sense breach means a “gap, as in a wall, made by battering.” It derives from Middle English breche, which means “an act of breaking.”

Among other such eggcorns I’ve encountered are “go to great links” (instead of “lengths”), “last-stitch effort” (“last-ditch”), “tow the line” (“toe”), “well-healed” (“heeled”), and “mute point” (“moot”). 

Malapropisms, by the way, as everyone knows, are named for the character Mrs. Malaprop, in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals, who says things like “illiterate” when she means “obliterate,” “illegible” when she means “ineligible,” and “contagious” when she means “contiguous.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou says exactly what he means, and the more’s the pity.

            Henry V was a merry old soul,
            And a merry old soul was he,
            Defeating the French was his favorite goal,
            And he set out to do with glee.
            He called for his soldiers, and then called for more,
            And told them go “unto the breach,”
            He vanquished the French by the end of Act Four,
            And then gave a very long speech.

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